Mason Researchers Looking for Fresh Answers in a Medieval Disease

By Michele McDonald

Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Doctoral student Farhang Alem works with one of the students from Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Program. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

George Mason University professor Ramin M. Hakami is searching for new ways to treat modern ailments by studying bacterial and viral biodefense agents, including the medieval disease notoriously known as the Black Death.

Along the way, he’s also coaching the next generation of researchers. The two endeavors are equally critical, says Hakami, who knows firsthand how crucial mentoring can be to young researchers from when he himself was a student earning his doctorate in biochemistry in the laboratory of the Nobel Laureate Professor Har Gobind Khorana at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Hakami now oversees a six-member team of undergraduate and graduate students at George Mason’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, which has a high-level Biomedical Research Lab on the Prince William Campus. Students at the center study diseases caused by biodefense agents.

The causative agent of plague, scientifically known as Yersinia pestis, has been used as a bioweapon in the past and is re-emerging. Hakami’s group studies the secrets it holds on how infected cells respond to the bacteria through communicating with each other (exosome exchange) and also signaling within the cell itself.

Adam Fleming works with student interns on the Prince William campus through the Aspiring Scientist Summer Internship Program. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Adam Fleming works with students. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

“The functions of many virulent factors for Y. pestis have been identified so we can go deeper into the disease,” Hakami says. “Whatever we do to combat pestis may actually be beneficial against other virulent bacteria that are in the same class, such as Salmonella and E-coli.”

Hakami’s lab also works on the mosquito-borne Rift Valley Fever virus, a potentially lethal tropical disease that’s classified as a biodefense weapon.

Biology undergrad Sherwin Parandeh wants to practice medicine in a hospital as well as conduct research. Working in Hakami’s lab gives him insight into not only the hard science but a career path as well. “This experience solidified the decision for me—yes, this is what I want to do,” says Parandeh, who hails from Vienna, Va.

Doctoral student Adam Fleming wants to be a researcher in a federal lab, and Mason has the only high-level lab in the area. “Mason was exactly what I wanted―everyone is very collaborative,” says the Ontario, Canada, native. “At this level of infectious disease research, there are only so many places you can go to learn.”

Looking for a “silver bullet” for infectious disease is exciting, Fleming says of why he is drawn to the research. Infectious bacteria such as pestis may be small in size but their function is quite complex. “It can subvert an entire organism,” he says.

Aspiring Scientist Liana Kramer works with graduate student Farhang Alem on the Prince William campus through the Aspiring Scientist Summer Internship Program. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Mason researcher Ramin Hakami speaks with one of the students working in his lab. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Farhang Alem chose to study at Mason because the experience will help prepare him for a career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The doctoral student is challenged by tackling “nasty bugs” and is even more challenged by his mentor. “Dr. Hakami wants us to do the work ourselves before he pings in,” says Alem, who grew up in Springfield, Va.

For graduate student and West Virginia native Remy Schoenemann, Hakami’s lab will help get him ready for a career to run labs because he sees projects from the beginning to the end. “Working in this lab, you get experience you can’t get anywhere else,” he says.

Hakami says mentoring is a crucial component to his research. “I think it goes back to my own experience as a student. The head of the lab at MIT and especially the post-docs showed me how to work and think like a scientist. It was absolutely essential to my work and helped get me where I am today.”